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Failing Economy Pushes Gorbachev Near the Edge

Rivals await his ouster but offer few innovations to solve Soviet crisis

By Daniel SneiderSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 1991


TIRED and empty-handed, Mikhail Gorbachev has returned from his journey to the Far East to face darkening skies at home. As the Soviet economy does a disappearing act, Mr. Gorbachev's enemies on the right and left are closing in. Gatherings of conservatives and democrats joined in pushing for the fall of Gorbachev's government this past weekend, though with quite different aims in mind.

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The proposed solutions to the nation's crisis range from conservative demands for a state of emergency to democrats' calls for formation of a "round table" coalition government.

Yesterday Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov presented the final version of the government's own "anti-crisis" program to the Soviet parliament. The program promises to stop an economic slide that, according to just-released government data, resulted in a whopping 10 percent drop in the gross national product in the first three months of the year.

"We have to work," Mr. Pavlov said. "We have to understand the nation is in danger." The portly, crew-cut premier says the economy can be turned around by the last quarter of this year through a combination of market reforms, austerity, and strict resubordination of the rebellious republican governments to the authority of the central administration.

"The sociopolitical situation should be stabilized," Pavlov told the Russian Information Agency after a Cabinet meeting this past Saturday. "If there is no discipline, responsibility, and order, it is senseless to speak about the country coming out of the crisis."

Pavlov's problem - and Gorbachev's - is that the population is being asked to endure hardship by a government that it neither trusts nor supports.

"Only a government trusted by the people can carry out strict measures to form the basis for a market economy," economist Stanislav Shatalin, author of a radical 500-day reform plan, told a conference this past weekend.

The government's anti-crisis program contains little that is likely to garner support, particularly from the republics' governments. It does offer some long-awaited reform steps, such as freeing prices, giving state-run enterprises freedom of action, privatizing state property, and lifting controls on wage levels. Some of these measures are similar to the 500-day reform plan.

But the government plan also combines the market steps with an attempt to restore central direction and curb republican autonomy. For example, it proposes a special management regime for the power, communication, and transport industries, hinting at moves to halt all strikes in those industries. All decisions by republican and local officials that contradict the center's policies would be frozen, and officials failing to carry out the orders of "superiors" would be punished. It also proposes banning pol itical strikes for the rest of the year, a move aimed at muting the growing labor movement led by the nearly two-month-long miners' strike that demands the government's resignation.